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Chicago Apartment Rents Are Surging. Here's How Residents Are Fighting Landlords — And Even The Mayor

Bubbling concerns over apartment rent hikes, some as much as 20% in recent months, are boiling over in Chicago, and tenants are now waging open war with landlords and the mayor's office as they seek relief.

Amid a housing shortage and high apartment demand, many Chicagoland landlords are now raising rents for two critical reasons: to account for revenues lost in the pandemic and creeping inflation that is driving operating and repair costs skyward.

Apartments in the Pilsen neighborhood

But as residents search in vain for more affordable options, many are embracing bolder tactics to remain in their neighborhoods, with some forming unions and pushing for an end to the state rent control ban passed in 1997.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s assurance that she would “put some guardrails” up to shield property owners from heightened tax increases hasn't consoled residents or impeded landlords who are likely to continue raising rents on account of the city’s high property taxes.

With asking rents up 4.5% year-over-year in Chicago, tenants are growing increasingly concerned about monthly increases above $100, said John Bartlett, executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization.

Bartlett said tenants’ most frequent calls to the organization’s hotline are about rent increases above $100, particularly those given with minimal notice, as well as complaints of unfinished and hazardous repairs.

“We always let the tenants know exactly what the law says because oftentimes we’re only seeing landlords give 30-day notices for rent increases, and if a tenant has lived there for more than three years in Chicago, that is against the law,” he said.

"People are panicking, and we want them to know they have time to look around at what is available.”

Under the Fair Notice Ordinance passed in 2020, landlords must provide 120 days of notice to terminate a lease if a tenant has lived in the apartment for more than three years and 60 days of notice to terminate a lease if a tenant has lived in the apartment for more than six months but less than three years.

Bartlett said he encourages residents to make a counteroffer and to always negotiate, “especially if [they’re] a good tenant with no prior violations of the lease because a good tenant is still valuable to a landlord.”

He also emphasized the importance of strength in numbers, advising tenants to get to know their neighbors to form a tenant association when assembling to approach an unresponsive landlord. 

Some residents under organizations such as The North Spaulding Renters Association, which represents tenants of mega-landlord Mark Fishmanhave met weekly since April 2020, airing their grievances and banding together to form campaigns against their unresponsive landlord.

However, other tenants, many of whom are under smaller landlords, are still shooting in the dark.

Julius Barajas, a resident of the Mayfair neighborhood, isn't active in any tenant rights organizations. The volume of stress his living situation has caused, plus the search for an affordable apartment to escape it, has left him drained, he said.

According to Barajas, his landlord started renovations on the attic above his unit without consulting him and increased his rent by $300 per month with little notice to fund the project’s repair costs. 

He said the search for a new apartment has been difficult.

Despite fruitless attempts to gain traction in the pandemic, calls for rent control by several tenant rights organizations, including Lift the Ban and the Metropolitan Tenant Organization, have continued.

Rent relief protest

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, whose 35th Ward covers the Logan Square neighborhood, told Block Club Chicago that “the big landlords have really shown the necessity for rent control.”

His office has lobbied for rent control in the past, fighting to place a question on the ballot concerning lifting the ban in 2018. Despite receiving over 50% of the votes in their favor, the law remained unchanged because it was a nonbinding referendum. 

Some experts say these calls for rent control are shortsighted and oversimplified, especially considering the lack of housing available.

“People who are pushing hard for rent control really need to go read an economics book because when you fix a price and you don’t fix the costs of providing the thing, the supply diminishes,” said Jane Garvey, a real estate investing expert at Chicago Creative Investors Association.

Garvey, who said many small landlords were driven from the business in the pandemic, echoed concerns about Chicago becoming too much like New York, given bidding wars and the push for rent control. 

“You will end up with poorly maintained properties similar to places like New York where tenants wind up fixing their own units, and you will wind up destroying a market,” she said.

As some tenants are priced out of their neighborhoods with no plans in place for rent control, Bartlett said tenants will continue to stretch beyond their means to stay put, with displacement and eviction remaining a top concern.

“This situation will not be good for renters or landlords,” he said. “Displacement harms communities because residents begin to care less about a place they will be only living in temporarily. This creates a cycle which helps to foster problems like violence. When people have ties to a community, they will work to maintain it more.”